I finally remembered to get to the nannyberry patch this year, also known as a patch of landscaping around one of my favorite disc-golf parks. I'd tasted nannyberries before, and liked the sort of raisin-prune-meets-dark-banana flavor they have going on, but I'd never managed to get over and harvest them. I'm unsure of the exact species, as there are many, but Viburnum lentago is most widely known, and for culinary purposes of making nannybutter they're all basically interchangeable.
Part of the reason I never got to them is that nannyberries, (also known as sheep berries, black haw, witherod, and wild raisin depending on the species according to Sam Thayer) ripen later in the season compared to most berries (I picked these in late September) which means they're easy to forget about when things like hen of the woods start popping up. It's a lot quicker to pluck a 5 lb hen from a tree than spend an hour gathering a gallon of berries, that, just like the hen, will still need further processing. Now, I see the berries as a season extender, something I can pick after the raspberries and blueberries are long gone.
I wanted the nannyberries because I'd never had them before, but more specifically I haven't had product they become: nannybutter. Nannyberries have a fleshy, pastey (in a good way) taste--they're not something you're going to make into jelly. Just like highbush cranberries, you'll need to separate the flat seeds before eating, and the best way to do that is to combine them with water, cook, and pass through a food mill while hot. The product you're left with is a sort of dark, prun-y nannyberry butter, and it is good.
Unlike traditional jams and jellies, if you concentrate the butter, you could probably get by without sweetening it at all, since no sugar is needed to help set pectin--it's thick all by itself. I do like a little sweet in my preserves for flavor as much as the improved shelf-life, so I added maple to mine. It's just sweet enough to be interesting, which I think makes the nannyberries taste more like themselves.
There aren't a lot of resources in print or online for making nannyberry butter sans Forager's Harvest, but it's not rocket science. The only real variable I thought was how thick to make it (it should just hold up a spoon) which you can easily dial-in by baking a puree slowly and whisking here and there--handy if a food mill (the ideal tool here) isn't available since all you need to do is strain the puree through a colander, china cap, or something similar.
Baking thick purees on low heat Is the same process I use for making large batches of dulce de leche, apple butter, and caramelized banana puree. The 360 degree heat of an oven not only evaporates evenly, preventing scorching, but gently caramelizes the puree with heat that adds nice toasty notes. That being said, there's more than one way to get from point a to point b, depending on your set-up, but a food mill is the best.
Once you make the nannyberry butter, it's great anywhere you'd use a fruit spread, but can also be combined with dairy or even water in equal proportions by volume to stretch it for desserts. All you have to do is plug it into your panna cotta, mousse, ice cream, jam bar-cookie recipe--anywhere the flavor of prune-bananas would be nice. The flavor affinities are easy to pick out too. If it would taste good with prunes or bananas, it'll be great. Here's a few sweet and savory partners your nannyberries would love:
- Brandy and cognac
- Citrus, especially orange
- Warm spices: cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, allspice and cloves, in small amounts
- Maple syrup and brown sugar
- Nuts, especially walnuts, butternuts, and black walnuts
- Liver, especially poultry
- Meat like pork, game birds and other poultry
I froze all of mine in vacuum pouches. If you want to keep fruit butters like this for the long term, I would recommend pressure canning, or freezing. This is a very low sugar preserve, so I'm hesitant to recommend water bath canning this. If anyone has done so, chime in.
Cooking and Scaling
I have specific proportions here, but this can be scaled up or down easily. All you're doing is adding water to your nannyberries until they're nearly covered, cooking low and slow, and straining.
There's lots of fun stuff you can make with the finished puree--just think bananas. Here's a few ideas.
- Food mill or high speed blender
- 10 cups nannyberries
- 7 cups water
- 1 cup maple syrup (optional)
- 5 cups Nannyberry puree
- ¼ tsp Cinnamon
- 1 pinch Kosher salt
- Wash the nannyberries well and drain, then combine with the water, bring to a simmer, and cook, covered, for 40-45 minutes on low heat, mashing them up to make a thick puree. Depending on how fresh or dry your fruit are, you may need to add more water to get the fruit really mashed up. It’s ok if the mixture seems a little soupy or loose, since you can always cook the puree down slowly afterward to concentrate it. Dried nannyberries may need more water than very fresh ones to become a puree, so use your instinct.
- Pass the mixture through a foodmill with a large die (large holes). My largest food mill screen is just barely small enough to not allow the seeds through, but some aren’t.
- If the mixture is liquid enough, I’ve had success pulsing it with a handblender or in a food processor to get extra puree from the nannyberries, but you need to be careful of the seeds as they’re brittle. If you pass your nanny butter through a food mill and still see a seed or two, pass it through a finer screen before storing.
- For nannyberry butter add 1 cup maple to the 5 cups of puree along with ¼ teaspoon cinnamon and a pinch of salt, then puree in a blender in batches to make it extra smooth, pour it into a shallow pan and bake, whisking occasionally for about 30 minutes at 325 or until thickened. Double check the seasoning, adjust until it tastes good to you, then store in a jar in the fridge for up to a week, or freeze.